Artist Spotlight: William Brown

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

Art can be a source of joy, an outlet for emotions, and an opportunity for self-expression. For some, creating is all this and more, becoming a means for survival. For William Brown, drawing started as a way to cope with a traumatic childhood filled with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. When he was as young as 7 or 8 years old, William remembers making pen and pencil sketches of the cartoons he saw on TV. From Ninja Turtles to the Simpsons to Disney movies, these drawings became his “portal to the world.” Only allowed to leave his room to go to school, William would draw what he could see outside his second story window: kids playing, people going to and from work, “people just living the life I never got to.” Sitting at his window, drawing people doing “day-to-day” things, William would capture the emotions of the people he saw and “so was born my fascination with human expression.”

William’s happiest memories growing up were the times he spent in his high school art classes. With no real friends, art class became his “home away from home.” He recalls how his art teacher became his only friend, helping him learn to translate his feelings into something visual. “I was able to escape into the created pieces and show the world how I felt and saw the things around me.” As he grew up, William continued to use his portraits and figure drawings to express his emotions and “deal with the life that was thrust upon me.”

As an adult, William discovered photography and instantly felt connected to the media. He was drawn to the idea of documenting “real life” and capturing what people usually “glance over or ignore.” William saw photography as a way to bring to light that the world isn’t always perfect and happy. As a portrait artist, he loved to capture moments where people could be themselves, “when their walls were down and their purest emotions were exposed.” Glimpsing these moments allowed William to feel like a part of the people he photographed, slowly breaking down the feelings of loneliness and disconnect he has felt since childhood.

“Being incarcerated has stripped me of not only my freedoms, but the medium through which I was able to connect to others.” Without access to photography, William lost the invaluable sense of connection he’d found through his work. He recalls waiting for sentencing in county jail with only a pen and paper, “reviving the lost love of drawing that had gotten me through the tough times when I was young.” Since that day, William has continued to refine his graphite drawing skills, going on to work with acrylics, watercolor, and even collage, before finding he feels most expressive with oil paints. “The common thread throughout, from my photography to my oil paintings has been to express raw, unfiltered emotion in my subjects.”

Ever since his first drawings out the window of his childhood bedroom, William has continued to be inspired by people. As a result of his isolated youth, William has always felt disconnected from those around him and struggled with his identity: “Who am I? Who do ‘they’ want me to be? Why do I not feel the way others around me seem to feel? What do I need to feel “normal?” It is these questions that have driven William to express and document human emotion. The desire to connect with others and to “feel accepted and normal” has motivated William to try to understand and explore his own emotions in hopes of someday finding the answers.

For William, creating is an immersive process. When he begins a new piece, William tries to surround himself with the feeling he wants to convey: “Be it happiness, grief, loneliness, pride, whatever, I try to invoke and maintain that same feeling in myself throughout the rendering of the piece.”

“If, for example, I am conveying happiness, I’ll work around others, chatting, laughing, having fun while I create. If I need to cultivate a feeling of solemnity or grief, I’ll isolate myself, reminiscing on troubled times in my life, bringing those often suppressed feelings to the surface, giving me a chance to share them and help heal them.”

William also uses music to help him channel the feelings, memories, and experiences from his life that he tries to bring into each piece. This thorough process allows William to feel more connected to the piece when it is completed. He also thinks others may be able to connect to this sincerity, so long as they “open themselves to more than merely looking at the piece, but seeing it.” For those who really “see” his art, William’s pieces are the most raw expression of who he truly is and how he truly feels. “Having this outlet has given me the opportunity to hold on to my true self and to be honest in a way that the brutality of incarceration aims to beat out of you.”

These days, however, William has been struggling to create, saying “I am truly disappointed in myself. The COVID-19 crisis has all but stopped my work.” William is at a facility that has been designated a “quarantine facility,” which means there are extreme restrictions on their movement and supplies, limiting William to mostly sketching. For the last 7 months, William has been in “quarantine lockdown,” only allowed to leave his cell for 45 minutes, three times a week to contact family and 15 minutes, three times a week to shower. They’ve recently added Rec Yard time, allowing William one hour, three times a week, but the rest of his time is spent in total lockdown in his cell. William is frustrated with himself because “where there is a will, there is a way,” and others have found ways to still create under the stifling circumstances but William feels numb. Every day is exactly the same and he can’t find his “creative force.” The situation has suppressed William’s ability to create and killed his morale: “It’s left me feeling like a failure to adapt to my new normal.”

Thinking back to some of his finished pieces, William reflects on his graphite drawing of a “nude woman sitting on the floor drinking from a bottle of Ketel One vodka.” He explains that it’s funny because his mother can’t see past it being “the crying drunk woman” but the piece is probably his most vulnerable. Inspired by a photo he saw, the drawing embodies William’s struggles with identity.

“Feelings of who I am and how to express myself have always conflicted with who others expected me to be and how they felt I was to behave. In this piece, I am showing my internal identity, as I was on the street. Feeling alone, emotional, trying to use my body to gain acceptance and satisfaction from others, drowning the emptiness in alcohol and tears, this was my everyday, my ‘normal.’”

In creating this piece, William realized how far he has come. He describes how he now has more confidence to “let my outside match my inside” and feels he will have the strength to be more himself in spite of people who may be intolerant or unaccepting.

“My incarceration has been a continuous struggle with identity; who I am versus who I need to be in order to be safe and secure in a microcosm of violence and hatred.” Creating allows William, but also others who view his work, to understand his thoughts and feelings at any given moment. “Art, to me, is a way of sorting out what my mind and senses throw at me” — a way of bringing thoughts and emotions into focus. No matter what media he uses or how he’s currently feeling, William expresses how, “I feel comforted knowing I will be able to tell my story to the best of my ability. Art and its expression has helped me through these rough years of being in a strange and uncomfortable world by allowing my voice to be heard.”

You can view more of William’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like William, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: David Green

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

“I want to show the world that in imperfection there is beauty.”

For David Green, every day is a struggle to express his creativity. Hindered by his institution, it would be easy for David to give up and stop making art. Still, he is determined to keep creating, saying, “I will continue to try and reach and hopefully help others in the world know that no matter what we go through in life, be it poverty, death, or losing someone or something, something beautiful is there in the end and we can overcome.”

Though David never received a formal education in art or poetry, he has always been able to discover new ways to improve his drawing and writing. Every time he closes his eyes — since the day he started creating at a very young age — he is flooded with ideas: poems to write or ways to better his art. He laughs, saying, “I have suffered from a long life of insomnia since I was six.” 

It’s not always simple or possible for David to create. He describes how the people he is incarcerated with, the staff, and the lack of funds for art supplies all pose challenges. He adds with a laugh that the lack of tables and chairs also hinder his art making. But David views these difficulties as minor problems. The greater obstacle is that “there is a time when people’s ungratefulness makes one discouraged from wanting to draw.” Yet, despite these challenges, David finds ways to continue making art and writing poems. 

With limited access to art supplies, David has found he can use any media he lays his hands on. When he begins a piece, David simply envisions the art or what is in his mind on the paper and draws it into existence: “I pick up, I look at my paper and just do.” 

People often ask David what inspires him, but the question is harder to answer than it may seem. “I’ve lost so much inspiration in my life that I honestly do not know what inspires me.” Still, David is confident that this will not always be the case, saying, “I do know that one day inspiration will enter my life and when that happens, I will know.”  

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, David reflects that though at first he felt unaffected, he has grown increasingly concerned for his loved ones. “I do have many people out there in the world that I love no matter if they love me back or even remember me.” Feeling disconnected, David explains how, “It scares me not knowing if they are okay or not, I just hope they are okay.” 

David is grateful that he can share his art with the world and hopes he can inspire others. He wants to share the following words: 

“I love and count you all as equals in my life. Just pass what I give you to the next you see. Because we need that more than anything in this world.”

You can view more of David’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like David, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Oasis in the Desert

By Annie Buckley

This is the first in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. Stay tuned for the second blog in Buckley’s JAC series, which will be posted on Friday, October 2nd.

For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.

photo by Peter Merts

Oasis in the Desert

Excerpted from Art Inside #5: Facilitator Training, 10/16/2017

It is 120 degrees out and yet the locals continue to insist that this is a cool July. I stopped noticing the constant sheen of sweat shortly after arriving here with team of student teachers to help lead a new class on the fundamentals of teaching art.

Our participants — and future teachers — are men that are incarcerated in two local prisons. They will eventually develop their own arts courses and teach their peers while cultivating creative community in the prison. On this day, we are midway through the 60-hour training designed to empower them to teach what they have learned, many while locked up, about painting, drawing, music, and poetry.

photo by Peter Merts

At this particular prison, our class was placed in an area designed for vocational training. Because of this, and the high security level of the institution, the students were strip searched before each class. They could tell this saddened us and offered the kindness of shrugging off the indignity to save our feelings. Being in that room also meant that they couldn’t bring any of their art or writing. So, until this day, we had nearly completed the 60-hour training without seeing any of their artwork.

On this special day, we were given access to another space where the men were allowed to bring their art: paintings, poems, cardboard sculptures, ink drawings, songs. We oohed and aaahed over detailed pencil drawings, paintings made of coffee, cardboard helicopters to rival model ones, and colorful animated characters. After a moving performance by the band, it was time for readings. We heard the most ingenious rhyming fairy tale, a moving apology letter that left many misty-eyed, poems that our musicians wanted to set to song, stories that opened up a window into someone’s life, and reflections on art and imagination and life.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council
photo by Peter Merts

The last reader was the youngest in our class. He was tall but baby faced. His piece was about expectations and implored listeners to find their voice: “Let it be your answer. Let it be your truth.” When he was done, an older student said with admiration, “You’re a philosopher, man!” Another mentioned that it was really hard to write in the second person and that he had done it so well. “What’s that?” The young philosopher asked with genuine curiosity. Later, I saw them talking. The youngster wanted to know more, saying, “I want to sign up for your class.”

photo by Peter Merts

This is what I love about this program. We provide tools but they build the house. In a few months, these men who may not have spoken to one another on the yard before this, begin to see one another as artists and mentors. Over time, this is reflected back at them through their peers, and they begin to see that in themselves.


About the Author:

Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”

See JAC’s recent Teaching Artist Spotlight for more about Annie Buckley and her work with the Prison Arts Collective.

About the Photographer: 

Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and the Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Elia Enid Cadilla

We recently talked with Elia Cadilla, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Elia has done research for the FILIUS Institute, part of the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico (among other projects, a study about the effect of theater in the rehabilitation process of female convicts.) Cadilla teaches Acting for Film and TV at the University of Sacred Heart, and directs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Theater Program since late 2001. Elia speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of the arts and radical empathy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the intersection of creation and justice might help to improve our collective societies.

  JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

EC: This is a complex question, with a complex answer. The main negative effect is frustration, both for the ones who are still inmates, as for the ones already free. Ironically enough, the situation – in terms of sheer survival – can be more dire for the ones out of prison than for the ones inside. The ones still incarcerated have food, lodging, medical attention. We’ve had to help out several of the women outside through our non profit, which is NGO, because many didn’t have the necessary tools to handle this situation. Many times they have to accept the most menial jobs, which don’t have benefits such as health insurance, for even though unemployment benefits have been extended for people who don’t usually receive them, some don’t have the tools to navigate the system, or lack a proper ID, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, those inside the prison are experiencing a type of incarceration they had left behind when they joined the theater group, mixed with a new restriction, which is the lack of family visits to prevent contagion. They communicate with their loved ones by phones provided by the Department but lack, of course, physical contact. However, in my communications with members of the group, I find there is a general understanding that this affects the whole population, not just them, and that these restrictions have managed to keep them healthy. They have access to information from outside, and are aware that some prisons in other states and countries have horrific stories going on. That doesn’t detract from their desire to go out and do their work, and see their families, but it makes it less hard to bear. The males of the Correctional Theater reside in a correctional institute that houses programs with certain privileges, and they’re concentrated right now in exercising to stay in acting form, and writing new ideas to work on as soon as we can resume our activities. The females reside in an area of the women’s prison, and are not as well organized as the men. This responds to patterns established in their own communities, and is one of the situations we deal with in the Program, but it’s a work in progress. The net result is that it’s easier for the men to manage their frustration at their inability to perform their job as actors and educators, but in general they are all coping, because they have something to look forward to.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EC: All prisons should have a robust health system, access to prompt medical care, and a crisis management capacity that has been sadly lacking in many prisons, both stateside and in many countries, from what I infer from the different news leaking out of some facilities, and from what transpired in our zoom meeting this past week. As far as what action is needed, I can refer to our own experience here. The minute the magnitude of the covid threat to health was ascertained, on March 13, the Secretary of the PR Department of Correction and Rehabilitation ordered a lockdown eliminating access to all civilians not indispensable for vital operations, with an organized plan that included checking temperatures of any indispensable personnel before allowing access to the institutions, with observation and testing in place, established correctional officers’ shifts rotation, preventive isolation of any possible source of contagion, such as inmates that had to go to hospital, and upon return were quarantined until proven clean. It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have had to work remote to ensure safe conditions for the inmates, but it has worked. All our inmates are covid-free. The 2 that pop up in statistics are two juveniles who came in already contaminated, were isolated at once and treated. If you have that kind of preventive crisis protocols, all concerns will not go away, of course; families will still want to see their loved ones and send them things, etc., but the bottom line here is we have to protect the lives of incarcerated people and stop the virus spread. A good management plan, such as instituted here in Puerto Rico, will accomplish that. Of course, nothing in the world is foolproof and we might have some cases in the future, but the situation has been managed successfully, so far.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

EC: It’s very difficult to balance safety with social connectivity in such a dangerous scenario as covid-19 presents for an incarcerated population; heck, it’s very difficult for the rest, non-captive population, with a great deal of stress and psychological damage taking its toll on a lot of people. The theater’s usual chores have literally, been one alleviating factor that has contributed to helping them cope. They have kept on writing, exercising, inventing alternatives to keep on with their acting through virtual strategies, etc. They recently sent me a proposal to perform by some platform through the sergeant, but it was one I had already presented to the administration. Regardless, I’m sending it also, in support of the already proposed tactic, but I’m conscious that getting it implemented will take some time. We’ve kept in touch through several avenues. One, their families. Even though not all inmates have a supporting, caring family, quite a few more than usual do when it comes to the theater group. This is because we foster family relations in different ways: we try to have relatives assist activities at open venues: theaters, for example, where anyone can attend. Usually the Secretary or the Sub Secretary (both very favorable, through the years, to the Theater Program) attends such an activity, and up to the very last one, they have authorized at the end of the performance relatives getting close to the inmates and congratulating them, hugs and expressions of affection included. The pride in families when they see their previously errant relative standing on a theater stage, applauded for their artistic work and their honesty (for the plays often depict the route that led them behind bars, and their reflection and repentance as well), have many times created a new bond of communication and respect between the inmate and his/her family. I try to keep in touch with those families that respond positively, and also with what are called “counseling friends” – people from all walks of life that decide to sponsor an inmate and give them some of emotional support and even sometimes some financial assistance for their more immediate needs, such as depositing money for their phone calls (which are very expensive, as we all know), and other urgent things. Two, our own team – the correctional officers and the penal case worker who see them during their shifts, let me know how they are coping, and advise them while at the same time letting them know what I’m doing to keep the Program going during this time. Three, I keep in touch with the commander of the institution, who is very favorable to the Theater Program (because they have an excellent behavior in and out of the institution, and help out in anything needed, plus keep their living quarters immaculate – part of their theatrical discipline) and with whom I maintain an open communication.

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 EC: Knowledge. Powerful networking. Funding. Not necessarily in that order. Funding is probably of the first order. Regardless of our commitment, our reptilian brain commands us to survive – food, lodging, health needs are fundamental. Most artists have never been the most savvy when it comes to making money a priority (first-hand knowledge speaks). But when the urge to survive slaps you in the face, it’s a must needs that has to be addressed immediately. And there the powerful networking and the knowledge comes in. We have to be able to identify possible sources of funding. People with the knowledge of where to find accessible grants, interested philanthropic or high profile personalities that can attract them, people with knowledge to create platforms that attract a lot of traffic and hence, support through the acquisition of high visibility… I can go on, but they are the same rules I have applied as a producer to my own productions in the past, and these are all very connected. You need one to get the other, and so we reach the egg and hen dilemma. If we all pool our resources together, the goals will move forward faster.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EC: No contest there: to see how their lives change completely. Even before they are able to go home free, they change. I’ve seen people who came from being drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts, gunners for the punto (the drug dealing business), thieves, car hijackers, you name it, become actors, artisans, writers, preachers even, for even though I do not participate myself in organized religion I do applaud the ones who look for it in order to deal with their past lives, as sometimes they need to feel God has forgiven them, and so they can forgive themselves and start anew. I keep track of many of my ex students. They send me information about their new lives, jobs, mates, homes, etc., and it’s a source of joy that we all share with each member of the support group and with other inmates that look up to the ones that have made it, and see in them that they can make it, too.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

EC: One of the jokes (we use humor a lot in the Program, in order to cope) we have shared within the Program has been: well, now a lot of people know how it feels to be trapped in a cell, to not be able to walk down the street when you feel like it. We’ve discussed how this new awareness can maybe change the way some people view incarcerated people, and perhaps influence lawmaking in some way or other. If you ask my personal opinion, I feel we have a long way ahead. The US has less than 5% of the world population and yet it has  22% of the world’s imprisoned population, far ahead of several totalitarian regimens. There is too much feeling of “otherness” towards imprisoned persons, and I firmly believe that we can change that through the arts, for I have seen it happen here in our system. When I began, almost 19 years ago (and I had already had a close look at the system though volunteer work with imprisoned youth), the officers almost uniformly disliked the Theater Program. What helped me in the beginning was that I was a well-known and respected artist, and so the manifestations tended to be polite in general, but there were also quite a few not-so-polite ones. Now (even though there’s still rejection from some quarters), we have no problem getting officers who want to be part of the Program and it’s actually a coveted position. Very soon some people who were skeptical about theater in prison saw the change in attitudes and behavior and recognized it as a positive movement towards rehabilitation and many became advocates of what the arts could do to change lives.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

EC: It’s funny how you manage to ask a question that sounds simple but its answer is anything but. It’s been a long road. I believe free will and fate coexist happily, thank you very much. Early in my career, my looks (then), would get me TV bimbo and femme fatale roles time and again, but I felt a very strong pull towards social theater and the minute a very respected theater director, Victoria Espinosa, cast me in a one-woman show as an aging, run-down prostitute (I was still very young, and so it was a fantastic characterization for me, which are my favorite roles), and got rave reviews for it, someone asked me to do it in a low-income residential project. From then on, somehow, I would get offered opportunities to work with low-income, high risk populations, both in PR and when I moved to NY. There I lived 8 years, and I found myself splitting time between acting in theater, TV and doing some film work, but giving a lot of my time to social theater. I taught at the Human Solidarity Institute (mostly to immigrants), ASPIRA – to disadvantaged youth, and the New Federal Theater, at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse, almost always with disadvantaged populations. When we returned to PR for family reasons, after several years in high-profile work in TV stations and theaters, I eventually gravitated once again towards teaching high-risk behavior populations, and when the then Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation looked for someone to teach at the women’s prison, it was almost by default that my name came up. The first year there were 4 teachers – 3 males actors working with the male population and I with the females. One year later I was the only one left, and wound up directing the whole project.

Elia co-authored an article for an arbitrated publication (IRB approved), about a small-scale (3 subjects sample) research study on how and why theater can be a rehabilitation tool. Below is that article.

CORRECTIONAL THEATER PROGRAM 2020

People can learn more about Elia’s work at:
Facebook: Elia Enid Cadilla
Twitter: @EliaEnidCadilla

 

Actress, producer, director and writer, Elia Enid Cadilla has represented Puerto Rico in film and theater festivals. Cadilla was Chairperson of the first Cultures of the Third World Symposium at the United Nations, and has received honors and awards for her work in several fields of endeavors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the PR Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers for over a decade and hosted the First Puerto Rican Coproduction Forum for Ibero American Films. 

Cadilla produced and directed the TV film “Cal y Arena”, based on a story she co-wrote. She’s producing and codirecting the documentary “Cicatrices” (“Scars”), about formerly incarcerated females who have used theater as a rehabilitation tool. She also wrote the series “De carne y hueso” (Flesh and blood), inspired in the real-life stories of incarcerated men and women. 

She produced, co-wrote and directed the series “Después del Adiós” (Beyond Goodbyes), lauded by the media as the best production of this genre in Puerto Rico. She’s written, produced and directed short film series for the Office of Women Affairs, and has produced and directed films for TV, musical videos, television specials and public service advertising campaigns. She coproduced and wrote the script for “Múltiples Ellas”, breaking the Performing Arts Center’s attendance record, a statistic that remained unequaled for several years. Cadilla produced, among other projects, seven environmental education festivals (with concerts, multimedia exhibitions, recycling, reforestation and beach cleanup drives and educational conferences), and was awarded and recognized both by government agencies and private environmental organizations. 

Cadilla was a leading figure in soap operas. Her roles include costarring in TV films and the Spanish-Puerto Rican film “Agua con sal”. A recent performance was in “The Vessel”, starring Martin Sheen. She produced and starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, receiving the best actress award of the Drama Critics Circle, which also chose the play as the year’s best.

Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.